Jean-Phillppe insisted that we cross the Lweya River and go to the other side. From the glitter in his eyes and the smoothness of his gradual smile, I concluded that my friend had literally foreign in love with the Durban-Chipembeli shoreline.
What surprised him, he said, was how the texture and colour of the sand on the northern bank of the river appeared to differ from the milk white fine sand on the southern bank.
The water in the river was brown due to the clay soil its tributaries collected from upland areas. If these were those days when we dared the MYP, I would have asked Jean-Philippe to join me on foot and cross the river. But these days, I fear natural crocodiles and man-made crocodiles alike.
“You mean, people can create crocodiles?”
“Through witchcraft,” I responded.
“A living ferocious, flesh-tearing, and bone-crushing croc?”
“Here people make crocodiles, lions, elephants, drones, hyenas, votes, voters, even rain and lightning!”
Jean-Philippe laughed so much so that, for a moment, I lost my temper.
“Don’t laugh. This is serious!”
“What’s serious? If your people were able to create rain, would you really be suffering from hunger year in, year out?”
“Who said we don’t have enough food because of lack of rain?”
“Look here. If you were so ingenious as to even create living creatures and rain, why are you so poor?”
“Who said we are poor?”
“Malawi is not poor?”
I did not answer because I knew nobody can convince a person who does not believe in what other people believe in. I called a young man who had a canoe on the other side of the river to come and ferry us across the Lweya.
“How much?” Jean-Philippe asked when we crossed the river.
“Mbwenu,” the young man, who introduced himself as Jolowali, said refusing to get paid for his work.
“Why? You have worked and you need to be paid,” Jean-Philippe said.
“You can’t pay everybody who helps you. Can you?” Jolowali challenged Jean-Philippe.
“So why do you do this?” I asked.
“For fun,” Jolowali said, pulling up his torn short trousers.
“For fun?” I asked.
“I enjoy seeing how fearful the powerful and elite get when they come in contact with nature,” Jolowali said, smiling innocently like a young child.
“Why would a poor man refuse money?” Jean-Philippe asked me in French after his attempts to force a few Malawi Kwacha notes into Jolowali’s hands bore no fruit.
“The poor are always in contact with nature. They see the vanity in us. They laugh at our fears, our failures, our weaknesses and our reductionist beliefs that money can buy anything, including life,” I explained as Jolowali rowed his canoe up the Lweya river.
Jean-Philippe and I continued our trip on the brownish golden sandy beach on the Boloma-Mdyaka shoreline. Jean-Philippe asked me if Jolowali was not a wizard because in his vocabulary Jolowali’s refusal to be paid did not make sense. I told him that umunthu is the philosophy that guides Malawian life, particularly in rural communities. Umunthu prioritises brotherhood over mercantilism. That is why, I emphasised, Christianity and Islam succeeded in Malawi. The two foreign religions shared elements with Malawian umunthu.
“Now I understand why you people are poor. Just how do you give out your labour for nothing? How?”
“Well. That’s what we are.”
“Change. Turn whatever you have, your labour, your sand, your lake, your wizardly, your umunthu, your silver grey hairs, and your witchcraft into development enterprises.”
“After you die, will you bury yourself?”
“Forget about what happens after death. Think about life.”
“What’s life without death?”
“It is life.”
“Don’t be sarcastic!You know that life is beautiful when contrasted with death. Otherwise life is worth nothing.”
“Death is not the opposite life.”
“I know that.”
“Now, imagine that your wizards and witches made real lions, elephants, crocodiles, fish eagles, hyenas, and dinosaurs and paraded them before tourists, Malawi would be the richest country in the world.”
“What would the tourists call Malawi, a witchcraft haven?”
“Something more attractive like ‘a bold, bustling, robust, and homegrown witchcraft economy’. Try it,” Jean-Philippe said.